Keepers of the Forest by James McNally

Keepers of the Forest by James McNallyWeaving scenes of everyday life with the acts of humans in support of belief, McNally creates a novel focused more on how the possibility of the supernatural makes people act than on the supernatural itself.

Disenchanted by his life, Brian reluctantly accepts a job as a swimming teacher in the Adirondack forest to clear his head. But when one of his students is kidnapped by an apocalyptic cult who believe the child is the key to wiping the Earth clean of sinners, only he realises it is more than a holiday cut short.

Using several interlocking points-of-view, McNally contrasts the actions of the cult, the prospective messiah, and the reluctant hero with each other. This provides the reader insights into the meaning and truth of events not available to the characters. Depending on the readers preference, this will either imbue the characters’ actions with an extra layer of tension or deflate the horror by reducing uncertainty.

McNally’s pacing is likely to be equally divisive. Much of the book deals with either ongoing life, or character’s making plans in response to events or new information. This thread of normality is especially noticeable in the actions of the cult; while the reader is shown the beliefs and character of the members, none of their actions suggest anything other than mundane ability. As such, the book offers a slow build-up toward an apocalypse that might just be a delusion, rather than an action adventure filled with dark forces.

While the plot is likely to engage readers who like an edge of doubt in their supernatural thriller, the prose might work against the subtle emotional tone such stories are often built around.

McNally has a noticeable preference for sentences beginning Pronoun Verbed (e.g. She walked…), giving the book a feel of a report or statement of events rather than an immersion in events. As the majority of the first page uses the construction, readers who are susceptible to word-echoes and patterns are likely to find themselves tallying rather than sinking into the narrative.

The novel is also written in a mostly distant, third-person omniscient voice. Although this does allow more opportunity for the reader to know things the character doesn’t, the describing of events and thoughts adds to the sense of reporting rather than experiencing.

Taken together, these stylistic choices might distance readers from the emotive potential of the plot.

McNally’s characters demonstrate equivalent qualities to his plot. Each of them has an interesting personal arc and history, and develops in a plausible manner; but this is presented in a slightly distant prose that might rob some readers of the pleasure of feeling rather than knowing.

Overall, I enjoyed this novel. I recommend it to readers seeking a novel about personal redemption and why people join cults.

I received a free copy from the author in exchange for a fair review.

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